Xylene technical fact sheet

Also known as dimethyl benzene, xylene is a colourless, sweet smelling liquid or gas that is widely used as a solvent. It also occurs naturally in petroleum, coal and wood tar. Adequate controls for the proper use, handling and storage of xylene containing materials reduce the risk of hazardous exposures and illness in the workplace.

The NSW Work Health and Safety Roadmap aims to achieve a 50% reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, including a 30% reduction in exposures to priority hazardous chemicals and materials. An initial list of 100 priority chemicals was developed based on national and international sources.This list was further refined using the following criteria: toxicity rating, exposure potential, estimated quantities used and potential number of workers using these chemicals. Xylene ranked ninth based on these criteria.

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Sources of exposure

Xylene exists in three forms o-xylene, m-xylene, and p-xylene. The sources of exposure and health effects resulting from exposure are consistent for all three forms.

Xylene is a common component of solvents used in the printing, painting, rubber, leather and agricultural industries. It is found in glues, adhesives, printing inks, paint thinners, degreaser products, solvents and sealants. However, it can also be found in petrol and cigarette smoke. Xylene may also be used in pathology and research laboratories to prepare or preserve tissue samples for analysis.

Exposure to xylene can occur through inhalation, ingestion or direct contact with the skin or eyes. While xylene containing compounds are found across many industries, workers that may represent a higher risk of exposure include:

  • service station attendants
  • mechanics servicing and handling petrol-fuelled plant
  • mechanics working with degreaser products
  • petroleum industry workers
  • printing process workers
  • painters and varnishers
  • agricultural workers
  • manufacturing workers (rubber, leather, plastics, synthetic fibres)
  • manufacturing workers of paints, dyes and lacquers.

Health effects

For short term (acute exposures) xylene acts as an irritant to the skin, eyes and respiratory system. Prolonged or repeated skin contact may cause dryness and redness of the skin resulting in dermatitis. Breathing in xylene vapour can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Xylene also acts on the central nervous system and can result in headaches, dizziness, vertigo and nausea. Although uncommon, exposure to high concentrations of xylene can result in death from respiratory failure.

For longer term (chronic exposures) symptoms may include headaches, chest pain, abnormal heart function, breathing difficulties, decreased lung function, decreased white blood cell count and confusion.

Exposure to both xylene and noise may result in an increased risk of hearing loss in workers.

Labelling and safety data sheets

Manufacturers and importers of xylene containing chemicals need to ensure that hazardous chemicals are labelled and that safety data sheets (SDS) are prepared and provided (cl.330 and 335 WHS Regulation 2017). Suppliers of a material containing a hazardous chemical to a workplace must provide current SDS (cl.339).

Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU’s) must correctly label hazardous chemicals used, handled or stored at the workplace, including materials, containers and pipework (cl. 341,342,343). The PCBU must also obtain a copy of the SDS and make it readily accessible to workers involved in using, handling or storing the hazardous chemical at the workplace (cl. 344).

Workplace exposure standards and air monitoring

According to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017, businesses must ensure that workers are not exposed to airborne chemicals above the workplace exposure standard. Xylene has a workplace exposure standard of 80 ppm (350 mg/m3) averaged over 8 hours. Risks to health and safety from exposures to hazardous chemicals must, so far as is reasonably practicable, be eliminated (cl. 35). Where elimination is not practicable, PCBUs must ensure that no person at the workplace is exposed to a substance above its exposure standard (cl. 49) and must reduce exposures so far as is reasonably practicable.

Where it is uncertain (on reasonable grounds) as to whether or not the exposure standard is exceeded, PCBUs must undertake exposure (air) monitoring for substances with an exposure standard (cl. 50). Adjustments to the exposure standards are made for extended work shifts, taking into account the longer daily exposure. The air monitoring results must be readily available to workers and records of results must be kept for 30 years (cl. 50).

A PCBU must review control measures (cl. 352):

  • when the workplace exposure standard for a hazardous chemical has been exceeded
  • if a health monitoring report contains advice a worker may have contracted an illness/disease, or a recommendation for remedial measures including whether a worker can continue to work with the hazardous chemical
  • the SDS for the hazardous chemical changes.

PCBUs are required to provide health monitoring to workers if there is a significant risk to the worker’s health because of exposure to a hazardous chemical listed in schedule 14 of the WHS Regulation 2017. Xylene is not listed in schedule 14, however there remains a requirement to provide health monitoring if there is a significant risk to the worker, and there are valid techniques to detect effects on workers’ health (cl. 368).

In relation to health monitoring, PCBU (cl. 369 to 378) duties include:

  • keeping records of health monitoring for 30 years
  • informing workers of the requirements for health monitoring
  • using a registered medical practitioner with experience in occupational health monitoring
  • providing details to the medical practitioner
  • obtaining a copy of the health monitoring report
  • providing a copy of the health monitoring report to SafeWork NSW if the worker has developed a disease or injury and/or the report contains any recommendations on remedial measures at the workplace.

Control measures

Where risks to health and safety cannot be eliminated the hierarchy of controls must be applied in accordance with cl. 36 of the WHS Regulation 2017 to minimise risks. For instance:

  • Where practicable, substitute xylene containing products with an alternate material.
  • Ensure adequate engineering controls (e.g. local exhaust ventilation or isolation) are in place when undertaking high exposure activities.
  • Use well maintained and appropriate personal protective equipment such as respirators, safety goggles, chemical resistant clothing and gloves.
  • Instruct and train workers in the correct fitting, use and maintenance of PPE.
  • Ensure safety equipment is available (eg. eye wash and showers).

Ensure that instructions and controls outlined in SDS and product labels are followed and that workers are provided with suitable information, training, instruction and supervision when using, storing and handling hazardous chemicals (cl. 39 and 379).

PCBUs with duties under the WHS Regulation 2017 must review and revise control measures, as necessary, to maintain a work environment so far as is reasonably practicable, that is without risk to health or safety (cl. 38).

More information

More information is contained in:

In the event of suspected exposure, call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126.

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